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July 25, 2019 by Dr. Kyle Varner in Diabetes

Do you remember Tetris? It came out a little before I was born, but its cultural impact was astonishing and remains so today.

There was something mesmerizing about the constant trickle of blocks, and how you had to constantly manage them to stay on top of things. 

It may sound cheesy, but I think this is a really good analogy for life

Think about it: Things come your way that you have to deal with, and they add up over time, but with proper management, they aren’t overwhelming. 

I can think of no other challenge that mirrors this better than being diabetic. It rarely goes away, it requires constant management, and it can be game over if you don’t…

You have to be so in tune with how your body works, what it needs and when. This can be seriously taxing and invasive when you’re just trying to get through the day

Surely there’s a way to hack down this workload and make the condition more manageable? A sort of ‘cheat sheet’?

Well yes, and it’s called the glycemic index.

It’s kind of essential viewing, so allow me to break it down for you…

What is the glycemic index?

The glycemic index is simply a collection of foods which all have specific numbers tied to them. These numbers tell you how much the food causes your blood sugar to spike.

Naturally, glucose, or pure sugar, sits at the top at a GI of 100. 

This yardstick allows us to compare other foods to the simplest carbohydrate. 

This only relates to foods that contain carbohydrates, like greens, wheat, rice, fruit, candies, potatoes and legumes.

Foods that are made up of fats and proteins don’t really have a GI, as they don’t contain sugars. 

But a food’s GI isn’t just how much of a food is sugar. It’s also about the makeup of that food, how your body gets energy from it and therefore how quickly your blood sugar will rise when you eat it.

For example, foods with a high GI tend to be very processed. This is because they often contain simple sugars. When they enter your system, it’s an immediate injection to your blood sugar levels.

Fruit that is riper has a higher GI, food cooked for long periods of time has a higher GI, and white bread and rice has a higher GI than brown bread and pasta.

Complex carbohydrates have a lower GI as they tend to be broken down over time and have a smoother and more even supply of energy. 

How does the glycemic index affect diabetes?

In order to understand just why the glycemic index is so important, we have to go over some basics about diabetes…

Specifically, I’m talking about type 2 diabetes. With type 1, your body can’t produce insulin, and you have to take it to regulate your blood sugar.

With type 2 diabetes, you have what is broadly termed as ‘insulin resistance.’ Either your body can’t process it very well, or your cells reject it. 

You then have to take medications that ease the process.

So, if you eat foods with a high glycemic index, you have a large, immediate increase in your blood sugar.

Now, you don’t want your blood sugar being too high, or you can suffer from hyperglycemia, a potentially fatal condition. 

For people who don’t have diabetes, their bodies naturally secrete insulin that converts that sugar into glycogen and body fat to even out the levels. 

But as a diabetic, you can’t do that, as you can’t produce enough insulin to meet your body’s demands

So, you have to work around the fact that high GI foods can be dangerous because your body can’t keep up.

What’s a healthy glycemic index for diabetics? 

If you have type 2 diabetes, you’ll want to plan your meals around low GI foods. This will reduce the risk of your blood sugar going too high. 

You want to have a diet that will give your body breathing space to absorb the sugar shock and process it safely. 

This means you should eat foods like:

  • Rolled oatmeal 
  • Sweet potatoes 
  • Peas  
  • Non-starchy vegetables
  • Legumes 

You should definitely avoid:

  • White bread
  • Instant oats
  • Commercial cereals like Corn Flakes
  • Melons 
  • Pineapple 
  • Pretzels
  • Sugary treats
  • Baked goods

It’s a clear distinction–stick with whole, unprocessed foods, and avoid highly processed and sugary carbohydrates.

But, if you do eat some high GI foods, always make sure you balance it out with low GI foods–fat and fiber tend to lower the GI of otherwise sugary meals. 

Now, the exact number range on the glycemic index you want to target depends on you. It depends on your body type, what medications you take and at what strength.

You should always consult your primary care doctor who knows your condition well before you try and target a specific GI number. 

But the thing is, if you’re diabetic you shouldn’t just look at the GI to determine whether you should eat something.

In fact, the total amount of carbs in a food is also a big factor. This is why those clever people at Harvard think a combination of carbohydrate amount and the GI level is also an important indicator of whether you should eat a certain food.

I’d take it even further: If you cut out carbs it may even help reverse type 2 diabetes. The opposite is also true–the more carbs you eat, the worse your insulin problems will become.

But, you don’t have time to delve into all that nutritional science, do you? I know I certainly don’t, and I used to be obese thanks to following the standard American diet for years –before I started to follow a ketogenic diet and the pounds finally fell off…

As I said, always consult your doctor, because while a keto diet can be great for you if you have type 2 diabetes. However, it is also often necessary to make medication adjustments while you’re on it. 

Nevertheless, the takeaway here is that you should keep your carbohydrates unprocessed and natural, and eat fewer of them all around.

Conclusion

If you have diabetes, it’s essential you understand how your body works in relation to the food you eat. The glycemic index is a useful gauge to tell whether you should eat a food or not, but it’s not the whole story.

Type 2 diabetes means inefficiencies with insulin production, so it makes sense to not stress it out. If you reduce your carb intake and improve the quality of the carbs you do consume, you’ll significantly reduce your risk of facing dangerous health conditions.

I’ve made a complete glycemic index list for every food you could imagine to help get you started. Make sure you check it out here –it means less work for you, so you can safely enjoy what you eat!

This information is intended to help readers be more informed about their health options when speaking with a professional, but it should not be used alone to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition. Be sure to speak to a qualified doctor before taking any action to make sure that your choices reflect your actual health situation.

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